Beth Roberts: Supporting Equitable Land Tenure Interventions with Geospatial Technology

A conversation about the role of geospatial technology in supporting women’s rights with respect to land tenure.

It is our pleasure to introduce to you Ms. Beth Roberts, an Attorney and Land Tenure and Gender Specialist with Landesa’s Center for Women’s Land Rights. Equipped with a Juris Doctor (JD) and an LL.M in Sustainable International Development Law, Ms. Roberts works to strengthen gender-equal land rights globally.

Founded in 1967, Landesa is an established global land rights organization that provides assistance directly to governments worldwide to promote gender-equitable rights to land through policy and legal advocacy, reform, and implementation. Landesa also engages in ground-level research and project implementation, and works in collaboration with civil society, corporations, global institutions, and initiatives.

“We’ve seen increasingly high-resolution satellite imagery used to provide much cheaper information relative to field surveys, aligning with a “fit-for-purpose” approach to land administration.”

How has geospatial data been used to support and measure land tenure interventions?

At Landesa, we are both encountering and exploring how geospatial technology might inform our work. Geospatial data is increasingly recognized in the context of land administration in low- and middle-income countries. We’ve seen increasingly high-resolution satellite imagery used to provide much cheaper information relative to field surveys, aligning with a “fit-for-purpose” approach to land administration. We see a thirst among government agencies and officials for efficient, cost-accessible, and modern land administration technology.

In our work in Myanmar, officials working on the country-wide land reform process have shown great enthusiasm for using drone technology to update maps, which has already been done in part using GIS technology. We are also working with the National Land Use Planning Commission in Tanzania, where officials have expressed their desire for increased use of GIS technology. Open source geospatial data is now presented as a part of the modernization of land administration systems.

Where have these types of interventions been implemented?

Remote sensing has been used for a large-scale evaluation of land rights and enforcement on deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon. A collaboration (between AidData and the German Development Bank KfW) used administrative data on demarcated indigenous lands, and then employed 30 years of remotely-sensed data on land cover to provide a rigorous estimate of program impact, testing the effects of demarcation on deforestation rates.

We also know there are innovative models testing scalable approaches using geospatial data to create access for groups that have typically been excluded from land administration services because of poverty, gender, or ethnicity. One approach in Ghana uses a GIS-based land registration system, combined with high-resolution satellite imagery, to reduce the length of a paralegal-assisted titling process from one year to a few weeks.

This automation has made the process not only faster, but less expensive, so that those living in poverty — particularly microloan recipients — can afford formal recognition.

How do geospatial data support gender-equitable land governance specifically?

From a gender and inclusion perspective, access to technology (who’s using it, who’s reporting the data) is especially crucial. Measuring the gendered impacts of an intervention requires data disaggregated by sex. In the previous example from Brazil, while the implementers used data from community-led demarcation processes, they did not identify who within the community was involved or what (if any) approaches were employed to make the process inclusive of women and other marginalized groups.

This question of access can also extend to policy makers in countries where administrative capacity is low, and rural areas must be reached with few resources. Landesa’s role in these contexts may often be as a go-between for government and civil society with regard to information on technology — providing them with information about geospatial tools, or connections with organizations that specialize in geospatial technology, and helping them understand the role and potential of this technology in their work.

What are the challenges involved in employing geospatial data in development work generally, and — more specifically — ensuring that land tenure interventions are gender-responsive?

We’re aware of risks and gaps in using technology more broadly to address land governance issues. Blockchain registries, for instance, are costly and complex to develop and institute, and are only as good as the input data behind them. These considerations may limit the appropriateness of blockchain implementation in some countries with severe governance capacity and resource constraints, as these technologies rely on the presence and availability of computers, software, and technical expertise.

This also raises questions of exclusion as a result of gender equity problems. For example, women, especially rural women, are more likely to be illiterate than men, and as a result are less likely to be included in and have adequate information about technology initiatives.

We also see a challenge with government efforts in particular. People may perceive their rights as secure because they can see them on a cadastral map, or because they were included in a process that used technology to demarcate their land; and this may benefit them in protecting their rights, or advocating for additional formalization. But mapping efforts are not necessarily linked to anything that makes the right secure in law or practice, and could actually contribute to insecurity by making productive land more easily identifiable by powerful interests and making those plots comparable to legal registries. Carefully disseminated information about the benefits and limits of mapping can ensure individuals and communities do not rely on technological approaches without mitigating these types of risks.

How might geospatial data strengthen the evidence base for the economic impacts of land tenure interventions?

One of the most important ways that strengthening land rights can lead to economic gains for rural women and men is by strengthening their incentives to invest. For example, a farmer who isn’t worried about losing her land can have more confidence in making investments in her land, which pays off over a longer period of time, such as planting tree crops.

While the link between land rights and investment is well documented, the hard evidence on how large these benefits really are and what kinds of interventions are most effective at harnessing that link is lacking, especially when those questions are asked with a gendered lens. In large part, this is because measuring agricultural outcomes has historically relied on household survey data, which typically gathered data only from male household heads, which overwhelmingly excludes the perspectives of women within a household. These kinds of studies are also expensive to collect: the costs can run into the millions of dollars.

Geospatial data have the potential to revolutionize this kind of research by providing data on agricultural investments and productivity at a fraction of the cost — and with greater accuracy — compared to household survey data.

More of this research will provide us with stronger evidence, both to demonstrate the economic benefits of securing property rights, and to identify what kinds of land policies and programs are most effective at improving economic outcomes for farmers, both women, and men. This requires sex-disaggregated data about how rights to land for women and men interact with rates and types of investments and in turn with productivity.

The evidence base question also brings us back to work we’re currently doing in Myanmar — in Tanintharyi Region, on the border with Thailand in the south of the country, Landesa has been supporting the Forestry Department’s efforts to issue Community Forest Certificates (CFCs). This documentation process serves a dual purpose: lending legal legitimacy to local communities’ rights and uses of the land, including traditional agroforestry practices; and conservation efforts — seeking sustainable management rather than rapid acquisitions for commercial agriculture and illegal timber poaching.

This could mean measuring differences in rates of productivity of agroforestry crops grown in communities that hold CFCs, and identifying whether there is a correlation between productivity and rates of inclusion of women in Forest User Groups and Management Committees.

The gendered implications of this work are numerous; women’s role in agricultural production in Myanmar is often seen as secondary; women access land through male relatives, support men in production of commodity crops, and play the primary role in the cultivation of crops for household consumption.

According to Landesa’s initial fieldwork findings, these dynamics are present in areas where Community Forest Certificates are being issued. Women are underrepresented in the Forest User Groups and Management Committees that form the governance structures for forest use and management under CFCs.

What is your role in relation to the private sector?

We see potential to involve geospatial data in environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) to aid consultations with communities and quantify or assign a value to issues identified (e.g., using GIS data to layer varying land uses and environmental risk areas).

Geospatial technology could also provide information about infrastructure and land uses to inform a due diligence process for a land acquisition, supply chain expansion to increase the quality and quantity of a commodity, or evaluation of a land dispute between a company and neighboring communities, including the gendered risks and applications of those activities.

This could complement an evaluation of laws, policies, and social norms in a given context or for a given investment.

We also see the possibility of companies using GIS, drone, and blockchain technologies to map land used or held by out-growers for agricultural operations and the communities around them in a way that’s a couple of steps short of registration. This could help companies understand the context, and could even allow companies to contribute to formalizing land tenure relations.

Beth Roberts
Beth with MPs Ayeyarwady.